I'm never on top of new music at the best of times, but 2011 proved an even more pathetic year than usual, with me belatedly catching up on every recommendation I could get. Still, I did manage to hear some fantastic albums, as well as discovering more than a few talents that demanded my previously distracted attention. I was also happy to discover more jazz, as I'm always woefully behind on that front when it comes to new sounds. I can rarely write about music, so forgive me if my justifications for each album sound a bit by-the-numbers. I do greatly enjoy all of these records, though, and I hope you'll give them a spin or two.
20. Wilco: The Whole Love
Despite my love for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco have never been particular favorites of mine. The Whole Love, however, is the first major reminder since the aforementioned opus that I should take this band more seriously. As varied as YHF, The Whole Love nevertheless mixes its adventurousness with a more casual, fun tone. The silly organ grind of "Capitol City," the rocking stomp of "Standing O," and the bouncing fuzz of "I Might" make for enjoyably hooky listens. Meanwhile, more meditative tracks like "Black Moon" and sonically probing ones like "Art of Almost" show a band still reaching for new expressions. Don't let the low placement here fool you; I only recently listened to this, and it will take some more time to fully unpack.
19. Frank Ocean: nostalgia, ULTRA
I confess no fondness for OFWGKTA and even less for its most visible member (though even I cannot deny the brilliance of "Yonkers"), but this self-released, R&B-soaked mixtape by Frank Ocean is enough to make me forget and forgive the collective's sub-Wu Tang excesses. nostalgia, ULTRA features smooth R&B saturated with invasive, modern production techniques that actually work to the music's advantage. Ocean's immaculately assembled ditties recall prime-era Prince in their ability to evoke strong emotion with a solid beat and idiosyncratic lyrics. Where Tyler the Creator's weirdness only grates me, Ocean makes me keen to see where he goes next.
18. Ty Segall: Goodbye Bread
I only just discovered Ty Segall a month or so ago, but I can already see him becoming a favorite. His garage rock stylings are a delight, not pyrotechnic so much as arsonist. Goodbye Bread combines that sound with a classic glam rock (think New York Dolls, T. Rex), and despite its fuzzy Cro-Magnon shuffles, it covers a clear range of stylistic material. Without ever turning into anything like a depressing album, it nevertheless grows darker as the music continues, and the music gets more complicated with it. Yet much as his spacey warble and chugging grind harks back to old eras, there's something special about this guy I want to keep track of. Goodbye Bread still leaves room to grow, and I hope I have time to catch up with the rest of Segall's work before he does.
17. Björk: Biophilia
Björk's cross-format opus revels in the artist's idiosyncratic tastes, dealing in subject matter that necessitated the consultation of scientists of various stripes, from astrophysicists to molecular biologists. The music itself is only more daring, with musical instruments being invented specifically for recording and unorthodox objects like a Tesla coil being used for musical purposes. As an experiment, Biophilia is bold, if esoteric. As an album, it's no less challenging, but fans will find her best work in ages, perhaps since Vespertine or even Homogenic. Even at its most obtuse and technological, Biophilia is never less than involving, especially for those already predisposed to Björk's beautiful weirdness.
16. (tie) Various Artists: Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) / Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Cliff Martinez's score might get the short shrift when preceded by the electropop tunes that I still cannot believe did not come out in the '80s, but the whole damn CD is endlessly listenable, with Martinez's simmering, synthesized tension matching up and splintering off from such gems as "Nightcall." As a throwback to the old Tangerine Dream-esque scores, it is a vast improvement, not only bettering the uncomfortable burbles of processed suspense but adding deeper moods of hollowness and barely checked emotions I never heard in the old soundtracks.
Meanwhile, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross swoop in the second year in a row to throw down the gauntlet with another digital soundtrack that wholly avoids replicating last year's magnificent score for The Social Network. In fact, the two are inverses of the other. The Social Network, a classically-ordered drama of chilly relations between distant men, featured a soundtrack of hissing, frantic tension. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, on the other hand, complements an actual murder mystery with a frigid, removed soundscape of gentle, spacious notes. Yet Reznor and Ross have judged it perfectly; even reading the book to the soundtrack works, its haunting refrains as cold as the leads on Harriet Vanger's disappearance, the occasional, faint, howling shriek like her ghost in the machine, screaming for release. I wanted to avoid listening to this until I heard it in the context of Fincher's film, but even on its own, it's another triumph from the unlikeliest pair of Oscar winners ever.
15. Tim Hecker- Ravedeath, 1972
Ambient usually puts me to sleep, which may be the point. Tim Hecker's latest, however, is so haunting I can't help but be riveted. The sonic wash never seems to float through any recognizable notes, bending and hissing in undulating sustains that would be infuriating if they didn't betray so much variance happening at the far ends of audibility. It's background music, to be sure, but background music that makes whatever you're thinking about in the foreground suddenly a whole lot less interesting.
14. tUnE-yArDs- w h o k i l l
As potentially irritating as it is ambitious, Merrill Garbus' project tUnE-yArDs has a hell of an album with w h o k i l l. Smashing together every genre within reach to serve up some deliciously angry lyrics about violence along ethnic, gender and economic lines. And those lyrics aren't always condemning; at times, Garbus fantasizes about inflicting some pain of her own, a simmering feeling she does not dispel by the end. Any album that begins with the lines, "My Country 'tis of thee/Sweet land of liberty/How come I cannot see my future within your arms?" cannot be all bad in my book, and I loved almost every second.
13. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
I never leapt on the indie folk bandwagon, and though I admired a great deal of Fleet Foxes lauded debut, I never fully loved it. This more refined, propulsive follow-up, however, marries the best of the band's first work with more intricate songwriting. The structural chug of "Battery Kinzie" juxtaposes the airy, ethereal vocals, while the instrumental "The Cascades" layers simple guitar riffs into something elegant and otherworldly. Even the more folk-y of the tunes is more adventurous, lyrically and sonically, than the excellent standard the band already set for itself. Fleet Foxes and the Sun Giant EP made me curious, but Helplessness Blues made me a fan.
12. Ambrose Akinmusire: When the Heart Emerges Glistening
Akinmusire was one of my favorite discoveries this year. The 29-year-old trumpet player not only sports one hell of a supporting band of similarly aged musicians, they somehow have a rich, developed history between them despite their age. Their interplay reveals an intuitive command not only of jazz rhythms but pop mechanics, and Akinmusire himself knows how to stretch a riff when he finds a particularly juicy theme. For such a young man, he displays none of the self-consciousness of a rising star looking to prove himself. Instead, the compositions stress cohesive phrasing over flashy runs, and Akinmusire dazzles by the range of sounds he coalesces into graceful wholes instead of launching into a series of arpeggios. You can hear damn near everything floating around in this sound—free jazz envelope-pushing, hard-bop rhythms, even contemporary sounds in the softer moments—but Akinmusire never cedes prominence to any one style.
11. Destroyer: Kaputt
Destroyer's ninth LP is a seemingly impossible assortment of genres, from acoustic indie to funky bass and disco pop. And as with M83, Destroyer rehabilitates the soft jazz saxophone without a trace of irony, as you can hear on the spaced-out title track. Dan Bejar outdoes himself with some tracks, particularly the sweeping "Bay of Pigs (Detail)," which uses the disastrous Cuban invasion as the launchpad for numerous, obtuse lyrical asides over shape-shifting electronic texture. Even better is "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker," with woodwind textures and melancholy lyrics more indie-cinematic than damn near anything that came out of Sundance this year. This likely won't make Bejar are star, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't.
10. The Throne: Watch the Throne
Jay-Z and Kanye West don't make for a particularly surprising pairing, but when the results are this good, who cares? Treading in the same pomposity that made West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy such a delight, Watch the Throne nevertheless enhances West's capacity for self-critique and atonement with the help of Jay-Z's reflection. Hence, the album can go from the compelling braggadocio of "Otis" to the gorgeous "New Day," in which the pair speculate about fatherhood and the challenges of raising children as rich moguls who must also stay true to their roots. 'Ye says the line "I might even make him be Republican/So everybody know he love white people" without anger or, even more disturbingly, irony. In its own way, that line is more confrontational and daring than anything OFWFKTA have yet made. Perfectly produced (duh), Watch the Throne is two mainstream giants stretching themselves comfortably, but they still prove that not everyone who succeeds is a hack.
9. Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 2
One of the true living legends of jazz, Rollins proves at 81 that he still has chops to burn and can even twist the mistakes brought on by old age into hastily improvised new directions. These live cuts are all dynamite, but nothing can top "Sonnymoon for Two," during which Rollins is joined by perhaps that other living master of sax players, Ornette Coleman, for their first-ever live jam. Content with themselves, the two don't fight for dominance or even join in a fiery combo; instead, they playfully dart around each other as if they were 30 again. Rollins' current lineup (as heard on the bookending tracks from Japan) is tight enough to bounce coins off on, but the stunt casting of his birthday show is anything but a gimmick.
8. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
To steal from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, M83's latest is an epic of epic epicness. Gargantuan electronic rhythms, choruses that can only be described with words like "soaring," and beats that demand the listener jump and dance define the constant peaks of the album. Picking favorites is difficult: I could easily go for the catchy squawk of "Midnight City," the anthemic "Reunion" or the especially retro pop of "OK Pal." At last, I think I settled for "Steve McQueen," which seems, miraculously, to layer in even more sounds than the other tracks. Forget waving cigarette lighters, you could only do this song justice by brandishing the Olympic torch.
7. Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Waits' cut-the-waffle album cannot be said to be a real return to form (he never left it), but it does serve as a wonderful sampler platter for his talents. The songs may be brief, but the range is vast, from the shuffle of "Chicago" to the defiant stomp of "Satisfied" to those quintessentially Waitsian ballads like "Last Leaf" (with guest vocals by Keith Richards(!)). Not a duff track here, but my favorite has to be "Hell Broke Luce," a more lyrical social commentary than the overlong "Road to Peace" off Orphans that also reconfigures PJ Harvey's album-length kiss-off to the fallen British Empire as an apocalyptic, in medias res conflagration of our own crumbling power. Waits follows that song with the deflated, boozy bawler "New Year's Eve," turning those screams of end-times fear into a beautifully intimate lament.
6. The Roots: Undun
A concept album of death and pain told in reverse, The Roots' Undun is the band's most flowing document, a strong contention for a group that makes everything they do smooth. Last year's How I Got Over showed the potential influence of all those introspective indie rock groups they saw night after night on Jimmy Fallon's show, but Undun is even more personal even as it reincorporates more of the band's famous neo-soul grooves. The final, four-part suite is short and gently composed (save for the frantic piano playing of the third movement), but it may stand as The Roots' most ambitious work to date, surpassing even "Water" from Phrenology. Elegant and elegiac as it is, Undun reveals a great many scars from the group's lives, a reminder that those larger-than-life celebrities sometimes know all too well the horrors of the "normal people."
5. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Suffering from LCD Soundsystem withdrawals, I was pointed in the direction of Girls just in time for this magnificent album to be released. Though the two groups sound entirely different, I understand why people have turned to Girls: they have LCD's ability to incorporate their influences into a cohesive sound without simply regurgitating those sources. Owing more to the Beach Boys than Daft Punk, Girls further take from their idols here by refining their craft into instant, hooking gems. Even when they stretch out, as they do in the draining, spacious "Forgiveness," the band is never anything less than immediate, and the deliberate childlike sense evoked by the the album's lyrics only make Father, Son, Holy Ghost more innately satisfying.
4. Fucked Up: David Comes to Life
I'm still unpacking the witty, self-aware rock opera narrative, but it's hard to pay attention when the epic sweep of Fucked Up's David Comes to Life hits at every turn. Damien Abraham's edged but jubilant howl perfectly embodies the combination of thick walls of noise and catchy melodies that define the band's sound. I found this ambitious, complex piece even more rousing and demanding of a sing-along than Titus Andronicus' more direct The Monitor. Hardcore punk hasn't aimed so high since Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen hung it up.
3. The Devin Townsend Project: Ghost
Devin Townsend's music has always been beautiful, even at its most processed and brutal. But Ghost is something else, a blissful, lilting soundscape that puts the artist's gifts for layered production to softer use. The result is a graceful, and logical, conclusion for Townsend's eponymous project, a name that always evoked a sense of introspection and self-analysis and autocritique. Woodwinds and acoustic guitars make for the perfect antidote to Deconstruction's pummeling, as well as, strangely, the perfect chaser for same. Picking highlights is impossible; most of Townsend's records have a smooth flow, but Ghost feels more like one document than even his similarly ambitious and unexpected Synchestra. The least aesthetically indicative of Townsend's albums, yet also the one that perhaps best proves his genius.
2. PJ Harvey- Let England Shake
Rare is the PJ Harvey album that does not demand to be considered among the fruits of its particular year, but Let England Shake is an especially ripe pick. Hauntingly lyrical yet unmistakably polemical, Harvey's album is her most immediately accessible and visceral since Rid of Me even as it displays bountiful evidence of her growth since then. I've listened to this album more than any other in 2011, and I still get chills when I hear her refer to butchered soldiers as "lumps of meat."
1. Matana Roberts- Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleurs Libres
The first of a planned 12-part cycle, Matana Roberts' Coing Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleurs Libres is a twisted, agonized, grieving account of African-American history that at times sounds as if John Zorn went back in time to crash the jam at Coltrane's funeral. Roberts' sax playing is electric, and no less terrifying than the primal shrieks of pain she sprinkles throughout. The album boasts such intricate, flawless playing that I still haven't accepted that it was, in fact, all recorded live, but the incendiary energy erupting from the band could only be generated by musicians playing to the rafters. Coin Coin Chapter One covers such vastness of emotion and narrative that I wonder where Roberts can go with the rest of the cycle, but I damned sure can't wait to find out.
Honorable Mention: LCD Soundsystem's final show
I shouldn't count a bootleg among the best albums of the year, but be thankful I didn't just list it as my number one pick as I'd like to do. The Tarantino of music groups, LCD Soundsystem always found a way to shamelessly embrace and repackage various influences in original ways, and their send-off is an orgiastic tribute to James Murphy's love of music and the astonishing canon he built up, a freewheeling run-through of all the hits for a band that seemed to have nothing but. Recorded by Pitchfork, the bootleg's soundboard is flawless and crisp, but even with the crowd noise turned down, the energetic roars of approval cannot be fully silenced. This show is destined to become legion for anyone who hopes to go out on a high note and leave the audience wanting more.